The Festival in Residence: Ann Arbor Program Notes

Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello was dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, who had died in 1918.  One of only a few works for violin-cello duo in the repertoire, it was preceded by Zoltán Kodály’s Duo, Op. 7 (1914), which, according to Ravel biographer Arbie Orenstein, was known to the French master.  Orenstein even detected traces of Hungarian style in the last movement of the sonata.  If that is true, then we have an interesting case of mutual influence, for the young Kodály’s visit to Paris in 1907 and his encounter with the music of Debussy and Ravel had a decisive impact on his whole career.

What Ravel’s sonata shares with Kodály’s duo is a taste for pentatonic melodies built of symmetrical phrases and a predilection for the interval of the perfect fourth.  But Ravel mixed pentatonic elements with daring dissonances and rhythmic complexities all his own.  The unity of the work is strengthened by numerous melodic links between the movements.

The first movement has a warm and lyrical opening melody, contrasted by a second theme with a series of dissonant major seventh leaps and a syncopated third idea.  The second movement is a scherzo in an extremely fast tempo that plays ambivalent games with the major and minor modes on one hand and duple and triple meters on the other.  There are extended bitonal passages (different keys heard simultaneously); both instruments play pizzicato (plucking the strings) for long stretches of time.  At the end, the cello’s final note, C, comes as a great surprise, since the entire movement suggested A as the main tonal center.

In the slow third movement, the main melody gradually becomes louder and faster, only to return to its initial state at the end.  At the climactic moment, the major seventh theme from the first movement returns (we will hear it again in the finale).

The last movement is extremely lively.  It strings together several folk-dance-like tunes, some of which are in changing meter and make use of bold harmonies and several special playing techniques.  Like the second movement, the fourth ends with a surprise pizzicato C, this time written as a chord for both instruments.

The Sonata for Violin and Cello marks an important departure from Ravel’s pre-war compositions.  Gradually turning away from his earlier ‟impressionism,” Ravel began to write in a crisper and wittier way, ushering in a new style that would culminate in his last major works, the two piano concertos completed between 1929 and 1931.  © 2023 Peter Laki

The farewell, absence and return that this famous sonata commemorates were by no means ordinary events.  The person who made these moves was the 21-year-old Archduke Rudolph, the youngest brother of the Austrian Emperor Francis I, who was forced to flee Vienna in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion in 1809, along with the entire imperial family.  They were able to return only a few months later, after a peace treaty between the two empires had been signed. 

Rudolph was a talented musician who studied piano and composition with Beethoven.   Teacher and pupil formed a strong bond, and the composer obviously missed his high-born young friend. 

The present sonata was the only one Beethoven ever wrote with an explicit program in mind.  The motives of farewell, absence and return lent themselves naturally for the three movement outline of the sonata (fast-slow-fast), and the extra-musical context threw that outline in even sharper relief.

Beethoven wrote the word Lebewohl (Farewell) over the first three notes of the sonata.  These three notes, together with their added second voice, unmistakably evoke a pair of horns, which in turn alludes to the signal given by the stagecoaches in which one (though not necessarily the royals) traveled in those days.  The motif is developed in a brief Adagio introduction that soon gives way to an agitated Allegro that expresses the whole range of feelings inspired by this particular parting.

The second movement, in Beethoven’s tragic key of C minor, depicts the pain of the separation.  But the pain does not last long:  the relatively brief movement continues without interruption, with an explosion of joy at the long-awaited return of the missed friend.  The tempo marking is Vivacissimamente, most lively, and, except for a brief slow-down just before the end, the music retains its extraordinary momentum all the way through.

Russian composers had a tradition of commemorating the departed with piano trios:  Tchaikovsky wrote his trio in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff composed his Trio élégiaque in memory of Tchaikovsky; and Anton Arensky’s celebrated trio commemorates the cellist Karl Davydov.  Shostakovich might have been thinking about these antecedents when, upon learning of the death of his best friend Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky, he turned to the piano trio.  (He had already written one trio in his youth, a brief essay in a post-Romantic style.)  Sollertinsky, who had been four years Shostakovich’s senior, was a polymath active in many fields; he died of a heart attack in February 1944, at the age of 42.  “I have no words with which to express the pain that racks my entire being,” a devastated Shostakovich wrote to their mutual friend, Isaak Glikman.

In fact, Shostakovich had made sketches for a piano trio in 1943, but these were not used in the work we know today.  The E minor trio took what for Shostakovich was an unusually long time to write:  he spent much of the spring on the first movement alone, completing the other three during the summer, at the retreat of the Union of Soviet Composers in the village of Ivanovo.

Unlike the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff trios, Shostakovich’s work adheres to the classical four-movement structure (as does the Arensky trio).  This layout allowed the composer to write music in many different moods, paying tribute to Sollertinsky’s complex personality.  The trio moves from a sad and mysterious opening to a wild and ferocious scherzo, from there to a lament in the form of a passacaglia, followed by the finale.  

The cello opens the work with a theme played all in harmonics in an extremely high register.  This eerie music, which seems to come from a great distance, later gives way to some angry and powerful outbursts.  The second movement scherzo seems to allude to Sollertinsky’s sense of humor and the many happy moments the two friends had shared.  The slow passacaglia (a set of variations over an unchanging bass line) is somber and mournful; it is followed without pause by the dance finale.  However, this is obviously not a happy ending.  Much of the material is distorted klezmer (Jewish folk music), where the cheerful rhythms are combined with painfully dissonant intervals in the melody.  It is no coincidence that Shostakovich started to be drawn to Jewish music during the years of World War II and the Holocaust.  One of his favorite composition students, Veniamin Fleischmann, had died in 1941 during the siege of Leningrad.  His memory probably played a role in the shaping of the finale, in which the Jewish dance melodies sometimes take on a positively tragic tone.  Reminiscences of the earlier movements make the emotional content of the work even more ambivalent, and nothing seems to be resolved when the trio ends with a few broken chords and other isolated musical gestures.

Shostakovich played the piano part when the trio received its world premiere in Leningrad on November 14, 1944.  His partners were Dmitri Zyganov (violin) and Sergei Shirinsky (cello) of the Beethoven Quartet.  © 2023 Peter Laki